The best Italian restaurant in the world?

Prego,” said the Italian woman sitting behind an elevated counter. She waved me into one of the dining rooms, bedecked with rich wood paneling and white tablecloths draped over the half dozen tables. I was given a menu, which listed the canon of Italian cuisine: sausage and polenta, spaghetti alla vongole, and a colorful and fresh-looking anti-pasta bar, among others. It would be perfectly understandable if you thought I was dining in Rome or Ravenna.

But I was, in fact, about 3,000 miles from Rome. The chaotic, but intriguing miasma of concrete, steel, and car exhaust known as Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, dwelled just outside the window of Castelli. The restaurant, opened, according to Rossella Castelli, the woman at the counter, in 1957 (though many reports have suggested 1948). It’s a relic of the failed Italian occupation. The Castelli family opened the restaurant and stayed here instead of following Italian troops back home.

I didn’t come to Ethiopia to eat Italian food. In New York, where I live, there’s an Italian restaurant on every block, many of which are sub-mediocre quality. I lived in Italy for a few years, where I ate the cuisine every single day. Italian cuisine has managed to conquer the world, to borrow the title of a recently published book. But when I’m in a place like Ethiopia, I’m going to eat the local fare.

It wasn’t until I read that Bob Geldof, member of the rock band the Boomtown Rats and the man behind LiveAid and other benefits to help eradicate famine in east Africa, said Castelli was the best Italian restaurant in the world that I decided I couldn’t leave Addis Ababa without trying it.
Besides Geldof’s superlative language about Castelli, Bono, ever the hyperbolist, has also reportedly chimed in, though tamping down his enthusiasm by relegating Castelli to the best restaurant in Africa. Brad Pitt and former U.S. President/peanut farmer Jimmy Carter have also twirled their spaghetti here.

As you know, celebrities, the great arbiters of taste and style in the 21st century, know what they’re talking about. Because they’re famous they have a superior sense of taste and style that seems to allude ordinary people. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. We rely on celebrities to tell us what to like. Especially when it comes to food. If it’s good enough for Bono or Brad, it must be great. Right?

I ordered a bottle of Ethiopian wine–called Gouder, which could have passed for rancid Kool Aid–and a couple pasta and secondi dishes. I’ve never experienced this before in a restaurant but the penne of my penne all’arrabbiata was actually under cooked. Al dente to the enth degree. The spaghetti with spicy saffron sauce was not overcooked, but the flavor managed to be bland. The skirt steak in a red wine reduction, though, was egregiously overcooked. The baked lamb, much to my delight, was tender and juicy and just about right.

Maybe the chef at Castelli was having an off day. Maybe she or he wasn’t even there. It was far from the best Italian restaurant I’ve ever been to (though, full disclosure, I’ve never been to another Italian restaurant in Africa, so Bono could still be right). If you’re in Addis, go to Castelli–not necessarily to eat well but to eat in a place that represents part of Ethiopia’s history. (It’s the only country in Africa that managed to rebuff European colonialism.)

Just don’t say that Bob, Bono or Brad sent you.